In 2023—more than 10 years after the eruption of the “Arab Spring” protests, and two decades after the United States’ ill-fated invasion of Iraq—the Middle East remains trapped in a state of chronic instability. In spite of a new wave of forward-looking leaders across the Gulf and a series of diplomatic efforts intended to lay old geopolitical tensions to rest, the region’s crises continue to grow, and the solutions have become more elusive than ever. The eruption of war in Gaza poses a distinctive and dangerous challenge for the GCC nations—which, while eager to move onward from the disputes of the past, remain answerable to the feelings of their populations. In the context of Israel, GCC leaders are weighing the economic and security benefits of closer Gulf-Israel ties with the popular outcry over Israel’s actions during the war. As with much of the Israel-Palestine question, a solution remains as elusive as ever.
For the time being, it seems inevitable that the war in Gaza will continue for weeks—perhaps even months—and leave catastrophic destruction in its wake. The brutality of the Hamas attack on October 7 sent shockwaves through Israeli society; it now brings anguish to the Palestinians in Gaza, and could easily spill over into Lebanon, Syria, or Jordan if further escalation occurs. Like most wars, the conflict has a clear start date, but it is difficult at the moment to predict how it evolves, which parties will ultimately take part, or where it will end. Because of the complexities and historical sensitivity of this war and the level of destruction, anger in the Arab world will only grow, further catalyzing regional instability. And as in all conflicts, regional and international powers will try to capitalize on the changing regional dynamics to maximize their own interests and influence.
Although the Islamic Republic has not yet been directly implicated in Hamas’ initial attack, its broader culpability in the group’s activities is crystal-clear. Over the past four decades, Iran has sponsored a vast web of interlinked proxy groups across the Middle East, ranging from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Houthis in Yemen, in addition to sleeper cells throughout the Arab world. All of these militants are receiving substantial support from Iran, including weapons, tactical training, and ideological instruction. Since October 7, Iran has sought to widen the conflict, using its proxies to strike at international coalition forces engaged in fighting the remnants of the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group in Iraq and Syria. Iranian-backed militias have also threatened American interests in the Gulf, notably in Kuwait, although these attacks have not yet occurred.
Key to Iran’s strategy has been its plausible deniability. Although the IRGC’s fingerprints can clearly be seen in the attacks against U.S. and allied forces, Iran has not formally intervened in the war. Instead, it has presented itself as an influential regional actor, ostensibly willing to offer its assistance to the affected parties—in exchange for expanded influence. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian recently indicated that his country was ready to play a role in the release of hostages, and other Iranian officials announced that many of the countries whose citizens were kidnapped and taken to Gaza had contacted Iran to help in securing their release. Although this gambit is transparently two-faced, Iran is aided in its portrayal of itself as an honest broker—and the United States as the warmonger—by Washington’s bias towards Israel and opposition to a ceasefire, leading to outrage across the Arab world.
Brewing Discontent in the Gulf
Although Iran’s machinations paved the way for the war’s onset, there is nothing external about the outrage it has stirred across the Arab world. Arab public opinion is boiling, and the harrowing pictures and videos of thousands of killed Palestinian children and the bombing of schools, hospitals, and residential areas has created a dilemma from which the GCC countries cannot escape. On the one hand, their relations with Israel, overt or otherwise, have paid real dividends in the realms of economics, security, and technology. On the other hand, before the eruption of the ongoing war, the leaders of the GCC have made it abundantly clear that their primary responsibility is to care for their own citizens, not the Palestinians. But when those citizens call on their leaders to condemn Israel, they have little choice but to follow. America’s role is only exacerbating the situation for the GCC governments, who, because of their close ties to Washington, are tarred by association.
In Kuwait, there have been increased calls to expel the newly appointed American ambassador before she could begin her work. Others have called for the Arab world to use the “oil weapon” against the United States, as OPEC did in 1973. The Arab countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel—namely Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates—have faced calls to expel their respective ambassadors, downgrade relations, or cut ties altogether. At the same time, the nations that host U.S. troops have come under pressure to push them out.
In all this tension, it is important to understand that actions and policies in the midst of this military escalation could lead to catastrophic implications on the security of the GCC. The GCC states are surrounded by Iran, the Houthis in Yemen, and the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq; all of them are capable of destabilizing the GCC states if the war in Gaza expands. Astonishingly, the GCC states do not seem to have taken the necessary precautions against such an outcome; their defense and security postures appear to have remained much as they were on October 6. At the same time, tensions have recently risen over territorial disputes, such as the occupied Emirati islands, the Durrah oil field, and the Khor Abdullah waterway between Kuwait and Iraq. Although these disputes have nothing to do with the conflict between Israel and Hamas, they could serve as further fuel for the powder keg in the Gulf.
The war in Gaza comes at a time of proxy war between the West and Russia in Ukraine, a great-power conflict between the United States and China in the Indo-Pacific, and a series of crises across the Arab world in Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. However, the war in Gaza will only amplify the instability because of its extreme impact on public opinion. All of this comes at a time where GCC states need to increase their collaboration to deter the growing regional and international risks to their collective security—and does much to undermine it.
The growing frustration among the Arab public against the injustice facing the Palestinians, and the increased capabilities of the Iranian-backed non-state actors, are the perfect recipe for chaos to erupt across the Middle East. This serious juncture could lead to unprecedented consequences on the regional and international levels. At the very least, the threat of an expanded Middle East conflict will likely increase regional militarization, defense spending, and perhaps even escalation within the Gulf to acquire nuclear programs.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.